Revealed – the new tech battleground. Your home.
The latest gold rush has begun – to take control of your lights, heating, security … and cat tray, writes James Titcomb in Las Vegas
Last week, more than 180,000 people descended on Las Vegas to see what the future holds. The Consumer Electronics Show, a week-long festival of gadgets, televisions and cars, is one of the biggest fixtures in the tech calendar. More people attend than there are hotel rooms in the city.
So if there is a place to gauge the pulse of the electronics industry, this is it. Every year, attendees and analysts try to use CES as a barometer for where the world is going, and what the next big thing will be. In spite of the increasing grip that devices have over our lives, manufacturers have been missing that eureka moment for some time. The touchscreen smartphone revolution was kicked off by the iphone 12 years ago, and there have been no shortage of false dawns since. Tablet sales spiked but have been in decline since 2014. Virtual reality has been a bitter disappointment.
The new gold rush, if this year’s showcase is to be believed, is the smart home. The cavernous show floor hosted hundreds of companies exhibiting their latest connected appliances, household items and fittings. Not one but two companies unveiled smart cat-litter trays, one of which, the Lavviebot, “automatically monitors litter and waste levels” in order to relay the information to a smartphone app. A smart sofa made by the French company
Miliboo is capable of wirelessly Who’s there? The Netatmo smart video doorbell charging a smartphone, and can be controlled by speaking to it.
If this is the future, it is not one that everyone is on board with. As the show got under way, the box-office actor Chris Evans, best known for his role as Marvel’s Captain America, tweeted: “Dear technology … I don’t need a ‘smart’ feature on my TV, thermostat, lights, music, refrigerator, security cameras, and f-ing car … You’re not worth it.” More than 360,000 people favourited the comment to signal their agreement – twice the number of techies at CES. Home automation is far from a new idea. The Clapper, an electrical switch activated by sound, was released in the mid-eighties. Motorised window blinds go back even further. But many pundits believe the technology has reached a tipping point.
“We’re starting to see that hockey-stick growth,” says Jitesh Ubrani, an analyst at tech researchers IDC, referring to a phenomenon often seen in a new technology where its adoption rate accelerates dramatically. “Adoption is growing, it’s coming from a small base but we don’t see it slowing down.”
Name a household item and an enterprising tech start-up has made it “smart” by giving it an internet connection and a smartphone app. Only a handful have gained traction outside of trade shows, however.
They include smart lighting systems, which allow users to turn off or dim lights over the internet; smart thermostats, which can be set to turn off the heating when everybody leaves the house; and smart security systems. Locks and doorbells can be set to grant temporary access to guests or package couriers, while smart security cameras can stream video feeds to someone halfway around the world, and alert them when there is unexpected movement in the garden.
The market remains relatively small. According to Orbis Research, global sales of smart home products were valued at $36bn
(£28bn) in 2017, less than a
10th of smartphone sales.
But unlike the smartphone, their market is growing. In
2023, analysts say, smart home sales could be worth $150bn. IDC estimates almost 650m smart home products were sold last year, a number set to double in four years. Some of the biggest technology companies are chasing a slice of the action. In 2014, Google bought Nest, a pioneer in smart thermostats, for $3.2bn. Last year, Amazon paid $1bn for Ring, which makes cameraequipped doorbells. Smart home gadgets have
become cheaper and more capable for some of the reasons that brought on the smartphone revolution – the rise of China’s electronics hub of Shenzhen, the growing capabilities of low-power microchips and the plummeting cost of components.
But another contribution from Amazon and Google, the age of the voice assistants, has turbocharged their popularity. Amazon’s Alexa service debuted on its voicecontrolled Echo speaker in 2014, and 100m devices that run the software have since been sold. The rival Google Assistant followed two years later. Last week, Google said the software will soon be on a billion devices (the company has a huge head-start on Amazon since four in five phones sold around the world run its Android operating system, which comes with the Assistant).
Before voice assistants, smart home devices were largely controlled with a smartphone app or even by sending a text message. The results were clunky, and rarely offered more convenience than the “dumb” home alternative. Voice assistants meant lights could be turned off, or the temperature changed, by barking a command, so long as a smart speaker was within range. Makers of smart home devices have also scrambled to make their devices compatible with Amazon and Google’s systems, which has allowed both to serve as a single control centre for an array of products.
“Smart assistants are one of the biggest catalysts; it’s simplified the interface,” says Ubrani.
Smart speakers themselves have been one of the fastest-growing smart home categories. Almost 100m were sold last year worldwide. According to Deloitte, 13pc of UK households had one in 2018, up from 5pc the year before. Smart home devices are rapidly falling in price, readily available and now easy to use. However, one question remains: whether consumers actually want them outside of Silicon Valley.
“Adding connectivity on its own is not useful,” says Paul Lee, technology specialist at Deloitte. “A light switch is something you flick on or off once or twice a day. It’s a fun exercise but I would not say it’s a mainstream thing.”
Lee says the objects that benefit from being connected to the internet are those used often, pointing to the growth of connected televisions and music speakers. “The most common application of smart speakers is connected music. A lot of people have historically listened to the radio for a couple of hours a day. Adjusting the thermostat is not something people do for an hour a day.”
Deloitte says just 6pc of UK households have a smart thermostat, and 4pc a smart lighting system, barely an increase on the year before. Smart fridges and ovens have failed to take off.
Ubrani says the companies selling smart home devices are well ahead of the average consumer. He says many of the current sales of smart plugs and lights can be put down to them being sold in bundles with the speakers consumers are really after.
According to the consultancy OC&C, while 95pc of smart-speaker owners in the UK have used them to listen to music, less than half use them as a smart-home hub. If the smart home does move beyond a tech-savvy minority, another problem is likely to rear its head. Internet of Things devices are notorious for their lack of security, privacy and reliability, despite the sensitive areas, such as home surveillance, in which they operate. The industry has been plagued by a litany of errors. Just last week it emerged that Amazon’s Ring doorbell company had given its security teams in Ukraine and the US live access to camera feeds. Last year, a glitch in Yale’s smart locks led customers to complain they had been locked out of their homes. In 2016, a software glitch left owners of Nest thermostats without heating. Companies are hoping to solve some of these issues. Arm, the British microchip company whose designs are being used in many smart home devices, last year proposed an industry-wide effort to make security a priority. “There was no real standardisation, no common approach that anyone [was] taking,” says Chet Babla, an Arm executive. “We were thinking, ‘we’re going to have this apocalypse if we don’t step in and do something’.” It remains to be seen how successful its efforts are. But it is easy to see how manufacturers could skimp on security as another challenge emerges. As sales increase, more companies are likely to jump on to the smart home bandwagon, increasing competition and driving down prices. This could lead to manufacturers cutting corners, but it will also drive down profit margins, a phenomenon repeatedly observed in the electronics industry in smartphones and laptops. Companies are already thinking about how else to monetise the smart home. Smart camera makers, for example, are selling subscriptions that allow users to store days of old footage, instead of it being deleted after it is watched. “Many of [them] are going to come to the hard realisation that selling hardware is not enough,” says Ubrani. “The money may be there now, but it won’t be tomorrow.”
‘People listen to the radio for a couple of hours a day. Adjusting the thermostat is not something people do for an hour’
Amazon Echo Plus is a smart speaker programmed with Amazon’s artificialintelligence assistant app Alexa to control home appliances such as TVS and lights by voice – although most people just use them to stream music
A Galaxy Home smart speaker by Samsung
Chinese ecommerce firm Alibaba’s Tmall Genie smart home speaker, displayed at the company’s booth at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, uses the intelligent personalassistant service Aligenie
Amazon Echo Spots are powered by Alexa
Moodo fragrance diffusers, controlled by smartphone